Fair Trade

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Kona coffee gets an article worthy of its pedigree

Posted by on 03 Oct 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

A friend of this Web site, Andrew Hetzel, called it the best article about Kona coffee ever written. That’s a pretty tall order. But this piece, which came out a couple days ago, makes a compelling argument: Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines – Adventures in Coffeeland. It’s at least good enough to make you forget that it was published in a in-flight airline magazine (Hawaiian Airlines).

A couple of our Kona green bean suppliers mentioned in the articleWhat makes this article a lot better than the others of its kind is that it looks beyond the usual marketing spin for both the good and the bad, it draws out some essential observations about the market opportunities and challenges for Kona coffee growers, and it goes into sufficient depth on some of its subjects. The author even dogs on Island Lava Java — where we cut them a little slack for some improvements on our last visit.

Another friend of this Web site, Shawn Steiman, is cited in the article and offers one of its many good quotes: “One lesson I’ve learned is that what coffee geeks consider the best coffees aren’t all that cherished by non-coffee geeks.” For another great quote from the article:

For all its urban faddishness, coffee is still a Third World crop, picked mostly by subsistence laborers in Latin America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Hawai‘i, meanwhile, is the costliest state in one of the world’s costliest nations, a tough place for an agrarian enterprise these days, as the sugar and pineapple industries can attest. With wages for Big Island pickers many times greater than those of their counterparts in developing nations, Kona coffee will always be overpriced; or perhaps the rest of the world’s coffee will always be underpriced.

Of the coffee industry insiders we’ve long known, Kona coffees have earned a reputation for both quality and for being overpriced. But there are real-world reasons behind that. It’s a good lesson for the many conscientious types who gripe about coffee companies needing to pay living wages and offering health care to their employees — but who are often the first to rebel against the coffee prices necessary to pay for all of that.

The focus of the article is on Kona. But as we wrote in an earlier review on Big Island coffee, there’s plenty of other coffee growing regions to explore on the island.

Trip Report: Origin Coffee Roasting (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 12 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Add Milk, Barista, Café Society, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Among coffee aficionados in town, quality artisan coffee originates with Origin. Opening in 2006 in a more modest space, this place changed the face of coffee in Cape Town if not South Africa. Since its expansion, it is now three transparent levels of coffee, café, roasting, regional Synesso distributor, and barista training labs. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a Nigiro Tea salon inside that will wow any tea lover. (“Nigiro” being “Origin” backwards.) It’s no mistake that the three core people behind the cool South African coffee blog, I Love Coffee, chose to meet me at this very place to discuss the local coffee culture.

One of the striking things about this three-level church of coffee is its level of transparency and open access. Through efforts such as Fair Trade, Direct Trade, and the organic coffee movement, transparency in the industry has become an operative word. Here that transparency comes to life — as visitors are welcome to walk throughout the building, check out their roasting operations, inspect their bags of imported beans, and tour their barista training facilities.

Hudson St. entrance to Origin, with Table Mountain in the distance Hudson St. entrance to Origin Coffee Roasting

Level 1

The service area downstairs is dark with wood slat walls — sporting an array of Hario vac pots, moka pots, drippers, home espresso machines, and beans. Sure, you could say that this place has all the same fad-driven coffee trappings at Truth., but for some reason it seems more genuine in this environment. There is plenty of seating and a two-group La Marzocco Linea at the ready for espresso drinks. Though this Hudson-Street-level downstairs entrance is a bit clubby with a lounge-like feel.

Signs announce the more interesting fresh roasts from Origin’s roasting operations, with a heavier emphasis on African-sourced-beans (Tanzania, etc.) but also some single origins from familiar terroir in Central and South America plus the occasional El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Signs also announce Origin’s place as the home of the 2007 & 2008 South African barista champions.

Entering the Hudson St. doorway into Origin First floor of Origin Coffee Roasting

Nigiro Tea occupies part of the first floor of Origin Coffee Roasting Staring down Nigiro tea pots

Level 2

Certified barista, on Origin Coffee Roasting's second levelUp the stairs past the Nigiro Tea salon, you enter their second level which consists of offices and a series of benches that form an espresso machine lab. Here, with barista certifications of employees hung on the wall, you can work with a Synesso machine, a WEGA, or a variety of other machines for training (or repair) services. Five years ago we recall Eton Tsuno of the defunct Café Organica espousing his vision for an espresso bar that offers home barista training, showcases home espresso machine models, etc. It’s been five years, and San Francisco still has yet to deliver on that vision. But here it is in Cape Town, South Africa — almost exactly as Eton described.

Wall of barista certification on the second level of Origin Coffee Roasting Synesso on display in the barista training room on Origin Coffee Roasting's second level

Level 3

Upstairs to the top floor, you encounter their main roasting operations, a lot of in-process bagging for shipment, and a soul food café. Towards the rear of the floor, there’s a brighter, glass-enclosed seating area that opens out to patio tables and chairs under parasols across from nearby modeling agencies. There’s plenty of café seating there behind the bright panes of glass with a chalkboard wall that’s something of a community chat space.

Like a few other quality places in the area, they serve their espresso shots as default doubles. There are no cappuccinos on the drink menu: only flat whites. There’s even a “3/4 flat white” for this who like theirs with less steamed milk. Staff wearing Origin “Some Like It Black” T-shirts use another two-group La Marzocco Linea machine to pull their double shots in 30ml shotglasses (for R14), placed on a saucer with a short glass of mineral water on the side. Origin used to offer ceramic demitasses for their espresso, but they’ve run out and are awaiting a new supply (they complained that those from the previous supplier chipped too easily).

US Roaster on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level Bags of greens and packing roasted coffee on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level

Seating area inside Origin Coffee Roasting's third level L to R: Francois Botha, Cindy Taylor, Andrew Franks of ILoveCoffee.co.za

Drink menu inside Origin Coffee Roasting ILoveCoffee.co.za and coffeeratings.com shares some blackboard space inside Origin Coffee Roasting

The Taste Test

Their espresso has a hefty, darker brown crema that persists, a robust body (one of the better examples in Cape Town), and a rounded, pungent, herbal-based flavor with spices and sweetness at the bottom of the cup. They also produce excellent microfoam: it’s even and not overly generous on their cappuccino (OK, “flat white”). You can readily see how inspirational Origin is — any town would be lucky to have it.

Read the review of Origin Coffee Roasting in Cape Town, South Africa.

Two-group La Marzocco Linea inside Origin Coffee Roasting The Origin Coffee Roasting espresso

The Origin Coffee Roasting flat white Seating outside on Origin Coffee Roasting's third level deck

The social politics and economics of coffee prices

Posted by on 07 May 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade

What is it about coffee today that makes it such a lightning rod for consumer indignation and class warfare? Nobody expresses outrage over a $400 bottle of wine, a $110,000 MSRP Mercedes-Benz, or even a $300,000 diamond-encrusted smart phone. But should someone dare sell a cup of coffee for $12, the world is coming to an end.

Angry mobs confront the $12 cup of coffeeAnd it’s not just the price tag that gets people taking up torches to Frankenstein’s castle either. Bring up a $12 cup of coffee, and angry mobs start asking about how much is going back to the farmers — or how much of the perceived price gouging should be donated to charity instead. Yet this reaction never happens with expensive wine, cars, or mobile phones. (We’ve even noted how this doesn’t even happen with tea.)

Because everything you do is really about me, me, me

People willing to splurge once in a while on a $12 cup of coffee are then invariably labeled “idiots.” But the same could be said of any passion or hobby that each of us spends our discretionary income on: wine, automobiles, NFL tickets, cable TV subscriptions, golf memberships, works of art, Disney vacations, etc. So why all the hostility as if a $12 cup of coffee were a personal threat?

In pearls before swine parlance, we are all swine about something that others deeply value. What makes coffee different is that we resent the suggestion of being “swine” when it comes to something we already relate to and experience. What could be presumed is that our taste in coffee is no longer good enough — as if what someone else drinks is somehow a value judgment about ourselves. Talk about insecurity.

Jezebel & Newser chime in on the designer coffee debateOne of the reasons for this cultural dissonance is that coffee is still largely perceived as a universal, utilitarian beverage of only marginal quality differences — an old notion rooted in coffee’s mass production in the 20th century. Another reason is the sense that specialty coffee has gotten too fancy for its own good. But yet another reason is that very few people in our complex society honestly know what things really cost — even if we all think we do.

Cost breakdown of a cup of coffee

Oscar Wilde once famously said that a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Most consumers know the price of everything but the cost of nothing. Coffee is a prime example. This is what makes layman reporters’ eyes bug out when they see the $18,000 MSRP price tag for a Slayer machine. They think you’re launching the thing on a mission to Mars for that price, completely oblivious of the fact that a decent — and more “pedestrian” — La Marzocco GB/5 machine runs for more than $20,000.

When people complain about the mythical $4 cup of coffee — or the “How I bought a house by making my own coffee at home” myth — they commonly operate with the false perception that retail coffee is $0.20 ingredients and $3.80 pure profit. We’ve vainly tried to explain that the biggest expense in a cup of retail coffee is labor, not coffee beans, so this time we’ll try to back it up with public data.

One major challenge is that every coffee shop is different. Another challenge is that the figures are often obscured in research reports costing thousands of dollars. We unfortunately couldn’t reproduce a recent chart for Starbucks showing how much labor costs were their biggest expense in a cup of coffee. However, here we’ve plotted data from one UK report in 2007 and a BIS Shrapnel report from 2006 showing the production costs of a retail flat white (call it a cappuccino for American purposes).

Data from a 2007 UK study on the costs behind a retail cup of coffee Data from a 2006 Australian study on the average component costs to produce a retail flat white

The chart at left represents the cost breakdown for a major coffee retailer, such as Starbucks. It not only includes labor, profit, and local taxes, but there’s also an administration overhead that covers things like advertising and marketing expenses, utilities, insurance, etc. The chart at right does not include the overheard of rent, administration, nor profit; it more closely represents just production costs.

The thing to note here is how little the actual coffee represents in the price of a retail coffee — and how much its price reflects labor, rent, utilities, and other costs.

So when you’re buying a specialty, limited supply, microlot coffee for $12 a cup, the cost of the coffee beans can increase by an order of magnitude. But don’t overlook the impact of labor costs on the end price. A delicate, pedigree coffee can be wasted by “normal” brewing methods. While vacuum pots and Hario drippers do a far better job of showcasing the coffee beans, they are far more labor intensive than brewing in a basic French press or generic coffee urn.

New York City or Yakima, WA: Who has the more sophisticated palates?

Even if you can successfully explain the constituent costs in a $12 cup of coffee, that still doesn’t explain the recent media freak-out in New York City over it. Aren’t New Yorkers supposed to be the cultural sophisticates — and not the ones stepping off the Greyhound bus on 42nd Street yelling, “Golly!!! That there sure is one tall combine!” like some wide-eyed Kansas farm boy?

Contrast New York City’s recent reaction with a $14 cup of microlot coffee that ranked no greater than a mere footnote in the Yakima Herald in 2008:

And while supplies last, you can order up a $14 cup of coffee made from Nicaraguan beans that Stumptown bought at auction for $47.06 per pound. According to buystumptowncoffee.com: “Its thick caramel notes, Granny Smith apple, kiwi and apricot flavors had us awestruck and thirsting for more.”

When it comes to coffee, it’s as if New York City keeps inventing new ways to embarrass itself.

UPDATE: June 6, 2010
Tadias Magazine, which reaches out to the Ethiopian-American community in the U.S., published this article questioning why the same rare coffee can go for $12 in New York and $2.69 in Seattle: $12 Cup Joe in New York? Same Coffee Goes for $2.69 in Seattle at Tadias Magazine. Once again, to paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the coffee. It’s about the labor. While the profit margins may differ, a huge part of the costs behind their pricing depends on how one café prepares the coffee versus another. Not to mention cost of living differences between café locations.

Please repeat after me, aspiring journalists and laymen alike: when you buy food or drink retail, you’re mostly buying labor. When you drop three bills for dinner at The French Laundry, you’re not primarily paying for a grocery shopping list of ingredients. This really shouldn’t be that hard to understand.

UPDATE: Sept. 23, 2013
Today the Daily Mail cited an Allegra Strategies study noting the breakdown of the price of a cup of coffee — down to labor costs (the biggest) and even how the beans cost less than the disposable cup it comes in: Coffee, the surprising reality: CUP costs twice as much as beans that are flown in from South America | Mail Online. Ironically, this news came out the same day that a blowhard in Australia, Michael Pascoe, gripes about the cheap materials cost of coffee while clearly clueless that it amounts to less than the price of the paper cup it comes in: The great coffee rip-off is no myth. Labor, Mr. Pascoe, perhaps you’ve heard of it? Or perhaps you write for free, as it shows in your analytical business skills.

The next coffee crisis

Posted by on 21 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Robusta

One of the long running jokes among the (these days: masochistic) fans who follow Italian soccer is that — at least according to the Italian sports media — teams tend to go from “crisis” to “crisis” several times in a given season. If a top-caliber team doesn’t win for two straight matches, sono in crisi (or “they are in crisis”). It’s as if the Italian media have a mission to create melodrama.

We think about that sometimes when we hear about the new coffee crisis: global warming, or climate change if you prefer. If you weren’t keeping score, the last coffee crisis was rooted in the collapse of coffee prices. With the 1989 dismantling of what was essentially a cartel among coffee producing nations, mass market coffee greens went from a high of about $1.50/lb to an all-time low of $.46/lb in 2003 — a pricing collapse catalyzed by the influx of mass-produced, low-grade Vietnamese robusta. It was this crisis that gave root to Fair Trade and other economic initiatives — to stave off the inequities of the coffee trade from spreading poverty and putting coffee growers out of business.

Our world's bleak future without coffeeHowever, today coffee has a new crisis. From papers [pdf, 622k] presented at the 2007 SCAA conference to some of the key talks at the conference last weekend (not to mention posts here going back to 2006), there’s been a lot of chatter lately about how the forces of climate change are reducing crop yields, eradicating available land use for coffee production, and extending the breeding grounds of harmful coffee plant pests. This month’s CoffeeTalk cover story comes with the apocalyptic headline, “Can this really be the end?” and the quote:

Nearly all of the specialty coffees in Latin America are sold and shipped. There simply are no quality Latin coffees left except Brazilian and those are going fast.

The fifth horseman: Robusta?

Something is seriously going on. But is it a bit premature to declare the end of coffee? There’s real danger in being false alarmist.

Whether it is quality coffee or anchovies off the coast of Chile, one of the biggest safeguards for a product’s survival is a group of consumers willing to pay a decent price for the good stuff. So when we read lamentations that coffee is going to disappear, and that coffee consumers are going to flee for cheaper energy drinks, we get the sense that these are primarily concerns for the lower grade coffees we generally avoid anyway.

L to R: Andy Newbom, Maria and Luis Jose De Rodriguez, Gloria Rodriguez, and Juan Diego De La Cerda at Epicenter CafeYesterday we attended a Meet the Producers event hosted by the Epicenter Cafe and Barefoot Coffee Roasters and got to test this theory. There we talked with Barefoot’s “Chief Espresso Officer,” Andy Newbom, to ask his opinion on the subject — in addition to the opinions of visiting coffee growers from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sure enough, they all confirmed our suspicions. As long as there are consumers willing to pay for good coffee, there will be a market for good coffee. It does leave concerns about supplies at the mid-range and low end. But the best way to ensure there will always be supplies of good coffee is to keep demanding it and paying a premium for it.

UPDATE: Oct. 7, 2010
A couple days ago, David Pohl, green coffee buyer for Equator Estate Coffees, posted an opinion that largely echoes ours here: David Pohl: “The End of Coffee As We Know It”.

UPDATE: Feb. 21, 2011
Maybe it isn’t the end of coffee. But it’s looking like an end to the artificially and unsustainably cheap prices: Why We’re Paying More for Coffee | Serious Eats.

UPDATE: Oct. 16, 2011
As if you expected anything less… a year and a half later, a guy with a desk job at Starbucks regurgitates old news, and suddenly it’s new news in the mainstream presses: Starbucks concerned world coffee supply is threatened by climate change | Environment | guardian.co.uk.

Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO talks beans

Posted by on 05 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Foreign Brew, Quality Issues, Roasting

Saturday’s Chicago Tribune published a pretty good piece on Intelligentsia CEO, Doug Zell:
Intelligentsia Coffee’s CEO talks beans – chicagotribune.com.

Intelligentsia's Doug Zell doing some heavy La Marzocco promotionWhile Doug gets a little loopy (our opinion) in abusing the ever-popular wine analogy for coffee — e.g., espousing such shoehorned ideas as coffee pairings — he’s been a pioneer and leader in areas such as:

  • responding to the many flaws in Fair Trade by developing Direct Trade,
  • taking a stand for coffee quality (or coffee Nazis, if you prefer) by abandoning 20-ounce, monster-sized drink options,
  • pushing the envelope of coffee service at his cafés,
  • and advocating the seasonality of green coffee beans. (While home roasters know you can keep green coffee for up to a couple of years, it always brews best as as a fresh lot of greens.)

The article also notes the roots of his coffee experience at the Bay Area’s Peet’s and Spinelli chains (the latter since bought out by Tully’s), Intelligentsia’s successes at barista competitions, and working with area restaurateurs.

However, on that last note, the article also quotes Rick Bayless — the “Frontera Grill/Topolobampo chef/cookbook author/TV personality.” While he is a genuinely talented perfectionist himself, and we love his food, his restaurants pull some of the weakest shots of Intelligentsia we’ve ever had.

The Return of the Coffee Middlemen

Posted by on 02 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Fair Trade, Roasting

Just when you think the profession of the coffee “middleman” was on its way out in this era of the Internet, in come a number of entrepreneurs trying to reintroduce them. What we’re talking about are consumer retailers that intermediate the sale of roasted coffee — with examples that include Citizen Bean, GoCoffeeGo (see Man Seeking Coffee’s recent review), and ROASTe.

These e-retailers provide online storefronts for consumers to review, order, and purchase roasted coffees from a variety of specialty coffee roasters. Virtually all of the participating roasters already have their own online storefronts with support for direct ordering. So the value of these e-retailers is supposedly in the discovery of new roasters and the convenience of buying your roasted coffee from one Web site. Or so the PR machines behind them have stated in our stuffed e-mail inboxes over the past few months.

Business model challenges

Some want to bring back the middlemenIn some ways, this reflects the ambitions of entrepreneurs who wish to shoehorn the specialty wine merchant business model on coffee’s ever-popular wine analogy. Other elements seem like attempts at coffee’s wine-of-the-month club. In either case, a major flaw in this model is that coffee, unlike wine, goes stale immediately after roasting. To address this, these e-retailers have established on-demand roasting relationships with their roasters.

Another major challenge with this business model concerns pricing. Adding a middleman always costs more money than a system without one, as they have to make expenses and payroll on top of all the other costs in the supply chain. It’s for this reason that coffee middlemen have been extremely unpopular in recent years. They’ve been demonized by the Fair Trade movement as unnecessary leeches, siphoning money from the coffee trade supply chain that should otherwise be going to coffee farmers.

In fact, the entire financial premise behind Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffee is to get rid of the middlemen. So who is paying for these e-retailers? Right now, it seems to be an arrangement akin to that of travel agents before the age of the Internet: the seller picks up the additional costs as a marketing and distribution expense, and no additional costs are passed on to the consumer. But how long will this last once the consumer novelty wears off?

It’s indirect trade: buying coffee through these roasted coffee brokers effectively cuts into the coffee roaster’s capacity to pay top dollar to their coffee farmers.

Dinosaurs before they’re hatched?

The travel agent analogy to these e-retailers is fitting, as there’s little you can do with them that you cannot already do directly, and more cheaply (total supply chain cost-wise), over the Internet. Like travel agents in their heyday, the value of a middleman comes when there is a lack of consumer information and/or a lack of direct public access to the suppliers. The Internet has rendered both as non-issues when buying roasted coffee. And we all know what happened to travel agents. So unless the individual roasters themselves completely screw up their business at sales and distribution, a middleman will have a very limited opportunity to improve upon these relationships.

For a comparison, over the years I have purchased green coffee beans (for home roasting) from distributors such as Sweet Maria’s and The Coffee Project. Why? For one, I simply cannot find supplies down the street. It also helps that a Web site like Sweet Maria’s provides a lot of flavor profile information and roasting recommendations. But if individual farms I knew and trusted started selling directly over the Web, that would change things.

Does this mean that these e-tailers don’t provide a valuable service customers want? Absolutely not. A number of them already have vocal, loyal customers. There may turn out to be a sustainable long-term market for one or two of these middlemen for a limited set of customers. But given the economic and disintermediation forces of the Internet, we foresee a pretty ugly commercial bloodbath on the horizon for a number of them. Travel agents did give way to travel-aggregating Web sites, but then we already had an established need for travel agents well before the Web came along.

Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it

Posted by on 04 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade

Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article highlighting the economic pressures on Latin America’s organic coffee farmers: Organic coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it / The Christian Science Monitor – CSMonitor.com.

Just as Fair Trade designed their program to attract coffee growers through the promise of financial incentives, once they made initial certification investments, organic certification has also been promoted as a way for them to earn higher margins for their crops. However, over the past few years — while Wal-Mart became the nation’s largest buyer of Fair Trade/organic decaffeinated coffee — the premiums paid for organic coffee have shrunk.

The economics of growing organic coffee in Latin America are now causing some farmers to “switch sides”. We’ve long been rather ambivalent about Fair Trade’s potential to live up to many of its good intentions. Although you could argue that “organic” is just another flawed solution attempted through the magic wand of certification, its aims and goals always seemed much more realistic and achievable.

Organic coffee hasn't delivered on the financial promises made to many Latin American growers Organic coffee's price margins have shrunk in recent years

Trip Report: Bread & Cocoa

Posted by on 16 Dec 2008 | Filed under: Fair Trade, Local Brew

Opening last month on the site of a former Briazz prepared-foods (lunch, primarily) chain shop, this corner café isn’t much of a leap from its predecessor. They serve sandwiches, soups, and salads as before — but with an emphasis on cocoa and espresso.

The store seeps causes from its signage: Fair Trade coffee and cocoa, Clover organic milk, etc. Yet that’s the required price of entry for doing business in SF these days: unless your front door bleeds feel-good causes, you have not justified why you’ve chosen to offend the public by opening a for-profit business in town. Even if said causes are more platitude-driven, high-gloss window dressing than substance (energy-inefficient polluting recycling or coal-burning electric cars, anyone?).

Corner entrance to Bread & Cocoa Some parts of Briazz never left

In addition to a wall of prepared foods and a central counter with a small, two-group E91 Faema Diplomat machine, there’s seating along the corner windows and some outdoor searing along Sutter St. at café tables. Deep in its recesses are the free Internet junkies on laptops, banished to the corner with power cords dangling from the ceiling.

In making a shot from Mr. Espresso beans, the barista is slow, careful, and deliberate. The resulting cup has a mottled, textured, medium-brown crema of average thickness, but it congeals rather richly. The shots also run on the short side, served in black ACF cups. Despite all that, it is relatively lacking in flavor. There’s no real “punch” to the shot; it has a tepid, mellow flavor of mild spices. Somehow they manage to serve a shot with a proper size and a promising crema that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations.

Read the review of Bread & Cocoa.

Bread & Cocoa's front counter with the laptop exhibit in back The Bread & Cocoa espresso

All Starbucks UK coffee to be Fairtrade, or: when you can’t beat ‘em, guilt ‘em

Posted by on 26 Nov 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Starbucks

As Starbucks‘ future looks ever bleaker and bleaker, CEO Howard Schultz continues his maniacal lever-pulling atop Starbucks’ runaway corporate bulldozer. After shedding themselves of music, movies, and books, they’ve tried everything from an online suggestion box and free coffee promotions to membership cards to less expensive (“daily”) roasts and smoothies. Mr. Schultz’s latest lever pull du jour seems to be coffee ethics, as this week Starbucks announced plans to source Fair Trade beans for all the espresso drinks they serve in the UK by the end of 2009: All Starbucks’ coffee to be Fairtrade – News, Food & Drink – The Independent.

This is hardly a new angle. Nearly two years ago, we wrote about McDonald’s announcement that they would source Rainforest Alliance coffee in the UK to ethically one-up Starbucks. But it was only less than a month ago that Starbucks announced that they were committed to doubling their sourcing of Fair Trade beans — albeit from less than 4% of their total coffee purchases to a whopping 6%. That makes this week’s announcement for the UK market appear to be a rapid escalation in retail coffee’s ethics wars.

The British already appear to be viewing Starbucks’ “100% Fair Trade” announcement with a surprising degree of suspicion and cynicism. And although Starbucks stated that they ultimately want to switch to 100% Fair Trade beans around the world, they would be far from the first of the major chains to do so in America. Tully’s Coffee, for example, switched to 100% Fair Trade beans over a year ago. Looking at Tully’s recent earnings statements, the move clearly hasn’t hurt Tully’s growth. But it’s hard to say if such a strategy will help pull Starbucks out of their retail funk, given that Tully’s is far from the only major coffee chain that is profiting this year while Starbucks ails.

The bigger question for us, as always, regards the legitimacy of Fair Trade and what Starbucks’ actions do to its public perception. Despite intentions, Fair Trade falls short of its goals on many levels — many of them publicized by Intelligentsia‘s rather public break-up with TransFair USA in 2006. An even bigger concern is how Fair Trade is being given an undeserved monopoly status on ethical sourcing. This issue was recently best described by Sam Mogannam, a good-friend-of-a-good-friend and owner of the Mission‘s Bi-Rite Market, at August’s “Building a Slow Food Nation” panel discussion (which was held at the the Commonwealth Club for Slow Food Nation ’08):

Anya [to Anya Fernald, Executive Director of Slow Food Nation ’08], you were talking about labels: fair-trade, organic. As important as they are, those labels were designed for the big box stores — so when you walk into a supermarket and you see an organic or a fair-trade label, you have some sense of provenance, some sense of pedigree, for those products. But there are many products that don’t have a certified organic label on them that go way beyond what an organic grower does.

Di Ruocco family crafts coffee with care

Posted by on 09 Oct 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Fair Trade, Roasting

Today’s San Jose Mercury News ran a nice, local puff news piece today on the Di Ruocco family, of Mr. Espresso fame: Di Ruocco family crafts coffee with care – San Jose Mercury News.

The fluffy article documents some of the background behind Carlo Di Ruocco, who founded Mr. Espresso over 30 years ago because he couldn’t find a decent espresso to drink in the area. (We can sympathize: it was bad enough just a decade ago.) Mr. Di Ruocco’s Mr. Espresso also became a licensed Fair Trade Certified roaster in 1999 — or more than seven years before whiny college students, who now militantly insist upon Fair Trade, even heard of the stuff. (So there.)

We last met Mr. Di Ruocco at the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Coffee Presidia tasting — at his son Luigi’s Coffee Bar. It’s great seeing local legends still very active in the area’s coffee community.

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